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UNMC study: Unconventional testing shows COVID-19 rates higher in schools than reported

Published: Apr. 20, 2021 at 12:24 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - A pilot project at the UNMC testing local students and faculty showed much higher COVID-19 positive rates than have been previously reported.

“Infection rates detected by the OPS PROTECTS program, in a partnership with the University of Nebraska Medical Center, were two-and-a-half times higher for staff and nearly six times higher for students than what was routinely observed,” Tuesday’s release from UNMC states.

The study tested K-12 students and teachers in three Omaha schools with predominantly poorer and minority populations in November and December 2020, according to the release. Almost 100% of faculty and staff at the schools took part in the study, while 12% of students participated in the project while hybrid attendance models — with about 25% of students in class — were in practice.

“This data shows the prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 infection in school-aged children is being dramatically underestimated,” said Dr. Jana Broadhurst, the corresponding author on the study. “We were able to identify and remove staff and students from the school environment who wouldn’t have otherwise been identified.”

During the study, participants had weekly PCR saliva tests, and environmental data were also collected through air, surface, and wastewater testing. According to the release, that data consistently found COVID-19 indicators in the schools’ wastewater, and found the same in the air and surface samples in two rooms.

“We believe this project represents a feasible, scalable and novel approach to screening and monitoring in a school setting,” Dr. Broadhurst said in the release. “Our results show as many as nine in 10 student COVID-19 cases and seven in 10 staff cases might be missed by conventional reporting. Doing this kind of testing can help lessen transmission in schools because of the ability to better isolate, trace and manage school activities.”

OPS superintendent said the study reinforced the district’s precautionary tactics.

“It’s extremely gratifying to take part in a project which reinforced the importance of some of the measures we put in place across the school district,” Dr. Cheryl Logan said in the release. “This study shows how things like wearing masks, reducing student density and improving air exchange systems can decrease COVID-19 transmission in schools.”

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